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Thursday, March 9, 2000

Legalizing marijuana
use for relief of pain

Bullet The issue: The Legislature is going to approve the use of marijuana for medical purposes.

Bullet Our view: The measure would create problems for both doctors and patients and should be rejected.

THE Legislature is about to legalize the use of marijuana for medical purposes by persons with a life-threatening or debilitating illness, although it is prohibited by federal law. This is not a good idea.

Marijuana may be useful in relieving pain, as its advocates say, but its effectiveness has not been scientifically established and it has not been approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration. Doctors who prescribed it would risk losing their licenses and facing criminal prosecution under federal law.

The Hawaii Medical Association opposes legalization, which should have impressed the legislators but evidently not enough of them.

Dr. John T. McDonnell, chairman of the association's Tobacco Task Force, said the states that have passed similar laws -- Alaska, Arizona, California, Maine, Oregon and Washington -- have found that doctors will not prescribe marijuana.

Without the approval of the FDA, McDonnell wrote, patients would have to buy marijuana from street drug dealers rather than pharmacists. This would leave the patients exposed to wide variations in potency and purity -- a troubling situation.

Moreover, there are many effective and approved drugs to ease pain. Because they have been thoroughly studied, doctors know how they interact with other treatments and the benefits and risks of their use.

As Sen. Norman Sakamoto commented, the intent of the bill, to relieve pain, is "commendable," but the measure "opens floodgates to a lot of problems."

For the state to proceed with legalization at this time would be to invite problems for doctors and patients alike.

In addition, there is the likelihood that legalization for medical purposes would lead to wider illegal use by people who don't need it to relieve pain.

This means more problems for law enforcement. For this reason, legalization is opposed by the police.

The National Institutes of Health and the American Medical Association have called for more studies on the effectiveness of marijuana in relieving pain and on the development of an alternative to smoking it, which can be harmful.

The more prudent approach would be to defer legalization. If and when marijuana use is approved by the FDA and federal law is amended accordingly, the state can enact similar legislation.

Oil could be released
from strategic reserve

Bullet The issue: Some members of Congress have called for the release of oil stocks from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to ease pressure on prices.

Bullet Our view: The Clinton administration should seriously consider such action if OPEC refuses to increase oil production.

OVER the next few decades, oil prices are likely to go down as a result of new discoveries, improved technology for drilling and greater efficiency in energy consumption. But the immediate reality is that oil prices are going up due to a decision by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to reduce production.

The Clinton administration says regular gasoline could go as high as $1.80 a gallon (a leading petroleum economist predicted $2 a gallon). That could mean even more in Hawaii, where gas prices are usually above the national average.

OPEC may decide to increase production at a meeting scheduled for March 27, but even so Washington says prices may continue to rise through the summer. If OPEC refuses to step up production, obviously prices could go even higher in the short term.

This is painful news for motorists and mainland consumers of heating oil, although nowhere as bad as the crisis created by the 1973 OPEC oil embargo. And it could add to inflationary pressure, which could force the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates sharply to keep the economy from overheating.

The situation has prompted calls in Congress for action, especially by releasing oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. President Clinton said the option of releasing stocks from the reserve was under consideration, but Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said he had recommended against it.

The energy secretary noted that the 1975 law authorizing the creation of a reserve of up to 1 billion barrels of oil restricted its release to a national emergency. He maintained that the current situation doesn't qualify.

However, the world oil situation has changed considerably since the law was passed. It's highly unlikely that the world will ever face another OPEC oil embargo. There are simply too many alternative sources of supply for an embargo to be effective.

If necessary, Congress could quickly amend the law to permit release of stocks from the reserve to relieve the current pressure on prices, which is a problem if somewhat less than a crisis.

Richardson says he's confident that OPEC will decide to increase production, and oil prices will then come down. But if OPEC fails to act, Washington should seriously consider selling oil from the reserve to the oil companies, which would pledge to sell it back when prices came down.

There is no need to let the reserve go unused when it clearly could help the economy now and the likelihood that it will be needed for an oil crisis is minuscule.

Published by Liberty Newspapers Limited Partnership

Rupert E. Phillips, CEO

John M. Flanagan, Editor & Publisher

David Shapiro, Managing Editor

Diane Yukihiro Chang, Senior Editor & Editorial Page Editor

Frank Bridgewater & Michael Rovner, Assistant Managing Editors

A.A. Smyser, Contributing Editor

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